Written by Jabari Kamau Gambrel, AmeriCorps member proudly serving on the Lamar Advertising team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge.
In an abandoned roller skating rink inside of an even more abandoned shopping center a black police officer stands. The room goes quiet. The expectation of his uniform almost speaks before he does, but his blackness seems to ask an unsteady question. “Who’s side is he on?”
From where I sit, I see a man standing at the edge of violence, a bridge that is unsteady but exists, but I also see him as the answer to this conference. The conference is on mentoring in Baton Rouge, specifically the young African American male population. All attendees have identified themselves as mentors. I have not missed the irony in my authorship of this piece. Me being a 19 year old African American male in Baton Rouge. This conference was about me, and yet I was taking part in it.
The officer mentions the violence on both sides. I think to myself that violence begets violence. As he speaks old saints nod, teachers and students nod, white women in expensive dresses nod, quiet men in sweatpants nod. When he finishes there is no applause but there is a breathing silence. I suddenly can smell the jambalaya, the mustard greens and sweet tea, but I am not immediately hungry. A community has gathered to discuss mentoring young black men. And it seems that no one black, white, in between, professional, un-educated has an answer that is direct.
But it is a reaction. One of the old saints stands, her skin black and clinging to her frame, with the draping of old age. She is the type of woman who says baby, or mon cher in a thick Louisiana creole. The type of woman to pray every night, and silence a room with a look. She bore witness to the civil rights movement, segregation and raised her boys and girls into the violence that can be this America. She says “it is the fire in this new youth that begets the troubles of today, no respect for authority, and rude with a voice, an aggression.” She sits, applause breaks out to my confusion. I think, I am not rude, belligerent and outwardly angry. My youth does not shine lights into windows, and drag mothers from children, my youth wants only for survival.
I think of the young black boys in my kindergarten class; their voices and their freedom.
They are curious and mad with intelligence. I think of how their legs will stretch, and their teeth grow, hands grasping for their own futures. I hear the words of my mother, “you are different, the police may not always wish you protection”. “Be quiet, be smart, and just make it home.” This is the song of the black mother, survive, survive, and survive, for hatred is not worth your life.
A woman stands her hair is locked. She is young, beautiful, a woman. Her voice is husky with defiance. She states almost in a whisper, “but isn’t that what we have been doing.” The saints are quiet. I glance at the police officer, his head is lowered, and the pastors nod hesitantly. And the youth roars, snaps, stomps and mumbles. The woman says thank you and takes her seat. She is right.
They all are.
But the question of the police officer still remains. If we have been kind and died. Submissive and quiet and died. But violence finds our graves as well. We are the police, the president, the teachers, preachers, and professionals. If we are America then why are we dying and what can we do. Mentor fear and passiveness, or mentor voice, all in the name of survival. But what of freedom.